‘Footnote’ – On Hereditary Stubbornness and Academic Vanity

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Footnote

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar

Israel, 2011

Joseph Cedar’s acclaimed fourth film Footnote, coming as it does with a Best Screenplay award at Cannes 2011 and a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination, is even by the less prescriptive ‘world film’ standards an incongruously successful offering. Rarely does a film as elitist in setting and esoteric in parts of its subject matter garner the hype that Cedar’s second Oscar nomination did. Even though it lost out to A Separation in the foreign film category, the nomination seems to have ensured sold out festival showings and the film was a box office hit in its country of origin.

Indeed, while certain aspects of the moral dilemma at the heart of Footnote – the occasional ethical incompatibility between truth and justice, family loyalty at odds with individual conscience -find resonance in the convoluted bandying of right and wrong at the core of A Separation, the idiosyncratic context of Footnote – the internecine wrangling between Talmud studies professors at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – singles it out as the more adventurous cinematic undertaking.

Two of the Talmud scholars in question are a father and son duo, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) and Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), the intensity and intransigence of whose academic rivalry borders on the parricidal. Uriel, Lior Ahskenazi’s most unaccustomed role so far (the hunky actor had to undergo major deglamorisation, gaining weight, growing a beard and attending Talmud classes, while for Bar Aba the role of the reclusive academic was a departure from his customary stand-up comedy ken) is a celebrity academic, equally recognised by the academic establishment and lay public. A media-savvy, charismatic public speaker with a knack for vulgarising obscure topics, Uriel is well on his way to academic stardom, under the scowling gaze of his father, Eliezer, who has toiled in oblivion at the margins of academia for many a barren decade. Eliezer is as ‘old-school’ as it gets, relying on meticulous pedanticism as his method, scrupulous rigour and uncompromising accuracy preventing him from any major publications. Uriel on the other hand is prone to impressionistic, big-picture research, turning whatever topic he touches into academic glamour.

Cleverly, Cedar’s film walks a delicate balance of sympathy for both characters, all the while allowing them to shine in unabashedly antipathetic light – the elder misanthrope, the younger social butterfly (well, by academe standards at least), both endowed with stubbornness of biblical proportion, with academic vanity and intellectual narcissism as inflated as their field of study is confined. The hostile familial status quo is breached when a mistaken notification of Israel’s highest state honour is delivered to Eliezer instead of Uriel. The son must now choose between his father’s one chance at intellectual glory and his own merit of the prize. The dilemma is exacerbated by the disparaging view the father holds of the son’s work and the tyrannical childhood memories Uriel bears.

This Oedipal knot is variously loosened and tightened as the story tumbles forward alternating comic interludes – Uriel in a towel cockily strutting around campus, admiring himself in a fencing outfit, or the preposterous table-shifting sequence in a minuscule ministerial office – and moments of dramatic poignancy- mostly involving the mother’s predicament as a buffer between her husband’s and son’s morbid egos- all the while keeping the audience at a satirical distance. The author’s intent seems to be not to incline viewers to sympathise with either party but rather to be exasperated by their paralysing familial stubbornness, with Eliezer’s bullish headstrongness imbued with added bitterness at his son outshining him.

Cedar weaves layers of subtle ambiguity – is Eliezer a staunch defender of academic integrity and exegetic purism, or does he merely lust after glory, an impulse he is too proud and obstinate to admit? The trope of the son trying to equal the father is here cleverly turned on its head, yet the audience’s sympathy is constantly in a tug-of-war (the wives are no doubt the more dignified members of this family). Is Eliezer not security checked on campus because he appears dignified or harmless? Is it personal animosity or rather intellectual mediocrity that is at the core of his sidelining by academia? Once he realises the accidental provenance of the honour, will he or won’t he accept the prize? None of these ethical conundrums are answered and the well-tailored cinematic closure ends on a cliff-hanger of a moral resolution.

– Zornitsa Staneva

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